On This Day: February 9, 1980

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Feb. 9, 1980

3 days before the opening of the Olympic games in Lake Placid.

Madison Square Garden. A fundraising exhibition game between the US and the USSR hockey teams.

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The US team had been training like gangbusters, learning the more fluid interchangeable-position Soviet style. Herb Brooks was determined to at least put up a good fight, and the only way that could happen would be if the US was willing to change, change their style, and try to “throw [the Soviets'] game right back in their faces”. It was a long-shot that the US and USSR would even get to play one another at Lake Placid. A lot of games had to take place, with the US winning all of them, in order to even reach the Soviets. But the Soviets were the ones to beat.

So this game at Madison Square Garden, on February 9, 1980 – 34 years ago today – was very important. It wasn’t important as a game in and of itself, it was just an exhibition match … but psychologically, it was going to be very important. How would the young US team fare against the towering amateur-in-name-only Soviet players? Could the US players send a message? Could they broadcast their intentions? Could they let the world know they would be worthy competitors?

Recently, the Soviet team had beaten the NHL on American ice, winning the challenge cup, a huge humiliation for the United States.

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The Russians had dominated the sport for almost 30 years at that point. The last time the Americans had won the gold at the Olympics for hockey was in 1960.

So although it was a long shot that the Americans would “go the distance”, they certainly had had enough of being humiliated, and on February 9, 1980 were eager to stand toe-to-toe with the Soviet giants, and show the world what they had been training for, that they could be “contendahs”.

To those of you who don’t know the story:

The USSR beat the US at Madison Square Garden, on February 9, 1980 – 10 to 3.

It was a crushing defeat, psychologically and physically. The US had been playing their upcoming Olympic competitors through Europe in the previous months, in exhibition matches – and had been faring pretty respectably. But meeting up with the USSR was the real test.

All illusions of even moderate success were wiped away on February 9, 1980.

Of course we all know what happened on February 22, 1980 … less than 2 weeks later.

But it is important to remember that that victory was not at all a done deal. Not even close. It was, actually, unthinkable – especially after the 10-3 game at Madison Square Garden.

COMPILATION OF QUOTES ABOUT THE FEB. 9 GAME AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN:

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Vladislav Tretiak, brilliant goalie of the Soviet team, writes about this game in his autobiography (sent to me by my good friend Emily):

Our National Team arrived in the States a week before the lighting of the Olympic Flame. There was a sparring match between the USA and USSR teams. The score, 10-3, speaks for itself. The Americans showed us only a symbolic resistance; the forces were completely unequal. Our opponents looked up to us, not hiding their respect. For them, we were the team that had beaten the best North American professionals, and not just once! Every one of them dreamed of becoming a professional player.

I remember their goalkeeper, [Jim] Craig, trying to catch my eye all the time. Whenever he succeeded, he would smile and nod politely. The Americans didn’t even think about winning then. The only question was how many of our pucks they would let in. They were very upset at letting in ten; nevertheless, they had a higher opinion of themselves.

Who could have known that this victory would play such a bad joke on us? It would have been better for us had we not won that exhibition game at all.

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“They were the Red Menace. They wore the CCCP across their chests. They were very very intimidating.” – Dave Silk, US forward

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“You had heard about them. You had known about how good they were. You had known about their successes. And now you were going to play them. And that night it was ‘Welcome to the real world, boys.’” – Mike Eruzione, US team captain

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“€œWe got crushed. And we thought … these guys are in another world.” – Dave Silk, US forward

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“They just kicked us around that rink. The goals they scored – you could have filmed them they were so beautiful.” – Jack O’Callahan, US defenseman

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“We were playing the Soviets right in Madison Square Garden – I knew I had to tweak Jimmy [Craig] again. And he was playing well, but it was a mind thing with him. I said, ‘Jimmy, I fucked up.’ I said, ‘I played you too long. Not your fault. My fault. I see these elements in your game. You’re playing tired. My fault, Jimmy.’ He says, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I gotta play Janaszak here half the game. I want to give him some work because – I just see some flaws now. And I’m kicking myself, Jimmy. I played you too long.’ And he said, ‘It’s my job, I’ll show you, you dirty blah blah blah …’ So halfway through that game, I yanked him. I yanked him right there in front of 18,000 people. And he was livid. This was my last tweak with this guy. I knew what I had. Solid goalkeeper … Right after we won [in Lake Placid], he came right to me, with his finger in my face, saying, ‘I showed you, didn’t I. I showed you, didn’t I.’ I said, ‘Yep. You sure did, Jimmy. You did a helluva job, kid.’ ” — Herb Brooks, coach for the US team

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“We were about ready to stand up and applaud them. We had never seen anything like that before. Guys were saying, ‘Did you see that goal? Did you see his move?’ We were spectators.” – Mark Johnson, US forward

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“I looked up at the scoreboard. It said 10 to 3. It might as well have said 20 to nothing. 10-3 made it sound closer than it was. It was no contest.” – Al Michaels, sportscaster

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“There couldn’t have been a greater low point, given the preparation and the work we had put in. It was very demoralizing.”- Jack O’Callahan, US defenseman

FEBRUARY 9, 1980:

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A MERE 13 DAYS LATER, FEBRUARY 22, 1980:

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“Anybody who left Madison Square Garden that day thought to themselves: ‘The Soviets will win every game in the Olympics, take home the gold medal, and never be challenged.’ And the US? All you knew is that when it came time to face the big bear, they had no chance.” – Al Michaels

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27 Responses to On This Day: February 9, 1980

  1. Emily says:

    There were two brilliant things about that game: the US boys had a chance to get a real taste of what they were going to be up against and, once they did, it made the Soviet team completely underestimate the skills of Herbie’s guys and the work they’d done. He told his boys to go out there and have fun. Fun. Hockey hadn’t been about fun for Herb Brooks since he was three. He wanted their guard down. I don’t think he was happy that they were slaughtered that night, but it worked out enormously for them in the end after they were. The Soviet guys always say now they “weren’t prepared” for the Olympic game. Prepared? These guys were pros. Robots. They could beat anyone. When it was all over and time came to clean out the quarters of the visiting athletes, they found over 120 empty bottles of vodka stuffed in the ceiling above where the hockey team was staying. Yeah, you weren’t “prepared.” No one will say it, but I’d put money on them being so lax towards the USA team that they were hungover.

  2. sheila says:

    Emily – and yeah, Brooks sensed that. That the Russians were underestimating his boys … so take advantage of that.

    What’s that great quote from I think it was one of the Russian forwards – he said something like, “In short, we did not respect their team. And you cannot do that in hockey.”

    A pretty big admission. You still get the sense from Tretiak that he’s pissed he was pulled from the game – that that is a loss that still hurts him.

  3. sheila says:

    And you know what? If Tretiak hadn’t been pulled, they might have won. That was a huge error, made out of panic, rather than logical thinking.

  4. Emily says:

    Yep. Viktor Tikhonov has said that was the single biggest mistake of his entire career. That was part of what made the Olympic game so amazing – the pure shock the Soviets were in when it dawned on them that they weren’t going to beat these guys while half asleep, as they very much expected.

    Tretiak’s account of it in his memoir was devastating for me. We’ve created such a happy mythology out of the Olympic game here, it’s rare for anyone to stop and hear how the Soviet guys saw it in the aftermath. When they went home, nobody would talk to them. They were treated like lepers. Pravda, true to form [eyeroll], wouldn’t even report on the game. It was horrible for them.

  5. sheila says:

    Right, we love you when you’re winners, we ignore you when you lose. It had to have been awful.

  6. sheila says:

    It’s amazing to watch the footage of that game on Feb. 22 – and the difference in energy between the first two periods and the second two. You can feel the surge of energy and confidence in the US team after their first big goal – but the real change is in the energy of the Soviets in the 3rd period. You can feel them suddenly fighting for their lives – like running down the ice, wildly – whereas before, they glided like sharks. It’s incredible to see them, suddenly, get really really messy.

    I still get goosebumps watching that.

  7. sheila says:

    // My favorite hockey quotation is Margaret Atwood’s claim that no Canadian will ever admit to being a big hockey fan — because it might imply that the person to whom they’re speaking is not one as well. //

    hahahahhaa

    Yeah, you don’t want to mess with Canadians and their hockey. Great piece here by my friend Jason that taps into that.

  8. Emily says:

    One thing I do love about the aftermath for the Soviets was their mixed expressions – they were half in disbelief and another part in a kind of wonder of re-familiarity. I’m sure you’ve heard some of them talk about it; it had been so long since they’d lost that they’d truly forgotten the joy of winning. Seeing the Americans revel in it, I’d swear you can almost see some of the Soviets actually smiling.

    And can we step back from those games for just a minute and marvel at the masterpiece that is Al Michaels’ hair? Nice ‘fro, dude.

  9. kathy says:

    I was working with a very geriatric patient, watching the game. One of the Docs came in and we ended up watching the whole thing. No one called or paged us and the patient began to think we were visitors, which he enjoyed! NEVER forget it! Sheila, how did the reading go?

    • sheila says:

      Kathy – that’s a really nice story. I love to hear people’s experiences of watching that game.

      The reading went great. I’m not big on immediate-response to something personal, but thanks for asking. It went great!

  10. sheila says:

    Emily – and the Peter Pan collar. Wow.

  11. sheila says:

    Emily – the shots they got of those Soviet players watching the Americans celebrate is really something else. I’ve watched a lot of big sporting events, where the stakes were really high – and I have NEVER seen the losing side look quite like that when it was all over. They looked almost … contemplative … like: “wow … winning can feel like that? we’ve forgotten …”

  12. sheila says:

    Jason’s entire series on the 30 for 30 Series on ESPN is well worth looking into. It’s a huge amount of work, a real archive of essays.

    I remember that Gretzky trade. It was freakin’ huge.

    • Emily says:

      …and there are still people in Edmonton who aren’t over it. They still burn effigies of the Oilers’ owner at the time who was responsible for it.

  13. sheila says:

    Oh, and Emily, I have to tell you this weird update in re: Jim Craig (member I had that signed photo of him?) – well, now I have another one – and it’s just such a weird and funny story – but I’ll save that one for Feb. 22.

    :)

  14. devtob says:

    The Soviet national hockey team of the 1970s was awesome — winning Olympics easily and playing on mostly even terms with the best of the NHL.

    Hockey fans like myself couldn’t root for them, but appreciated their emphasis on passing rather than dumping the puck into the corner and that they rarely engaged in fighting, unlike the NHL of the time.

    They really played better hockey.

    That a US college all-star team could beat them was unthinkable, until it happened.

    Thanks for reminding us how the MSG exhibition loss set up that epic win, especially the quote from Tretiak, the best goalie in the world then, “Who could have known that this victory would play such a bad joke on us? It would have been better for us had we not won that exhibition game at all.”

  15. devtob says:

    There’s a YouTube of the Olympic game (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fztlLwgSFCg&feature=related), 10 minutes of highlights, all the USA goals, the third Soviet goal, and the celebration.

    Preceded by some text that included the fact that the Soviets had not lost an Olympic game since 1968.

    I remember Craig making several amazing saves, but they’re not in this clip, alas.

    Tretiak allowed a rebound off a past-center-ice slapshot hope that led to a goal with just one second left in the first period, tying the score at 2. The announcer called it a “a poor play” by Tretiak, which it obviously was. And Tikhonov agreed, pulling the best goalie in the world.

    The announcer noted that Eruzione’s winning goal, using a defenseman who’d gone down to block the shot as a screen, was “just the kind of goal Eruzione scored about two weeks ago against the Soviets in Madison Square Garden.”

    Watching this still makes my eyes water.

  16. sheila says:

    Devtob – me too. It’s truly goosebump material. The moment when the defensemen let Mark Johnson through, thinking the period was over ….

    A fatal error.

  17. sheila says:

    Devtob – do you remember where you were when you watched the Miracle on Ice? I remember mine, but I’d love to hear yours.

  18. devtob says:

    Almost every center-ice slapshot with five seconds left doesn’t end up in a goal.

    Tretiak got the blame, but two Soviet defensemen let Johnson alone as he cruised (onside) through them to score on the rebound.

    They thought the period was over, too.

  19. sheila says:

    It still amazes … the momentary lapse of judgment …

    • sheila says:

      devtob – In the HBO doc about the Miracle on Ice, they interview one of those Soviet defensemen. He says, chagrined, but also a bit humorously, “We thought the period was over. We relaxed a little bit. Obviously, that was a very big mistake.”

  20. alli says:

    This is one of those sports moments I wish I’d been alive for. So very different from hindsight, to be into those games and NOT know what happens… would’ve been cool.

    • Edd "Kick" Kickenweitz says:

      alli

      I was one of the on ice officials for the 2/9/80 game @ MSG. We were not assigned to do that game originally. There was a mix up by the US Hockey Olympic Committee, MSG, and the NY Rangers (Sponsors). I worked in the Box Office of MSG at the time and officiated Semi-pro and college games locally. Dick Tremble who was the other Linesman was at the game. He used to give me my game assignments, so I set up tickets for him for the game. Jimmy Doyle was there because he was going to Lake Placid to be a Linesman for the 1980 Olympic Games. It was truly a wonderful time in my life.

  21. Lisa says:

    I just remember that I was a freshman in high school, and since it was a Friday night in Illinois, we were at a basketball game. The radio guys who broadcast our game heard it over the wire, then “radioed” down to the PA guy and told him. During a time out, the PA guy announced, “I just want everyone to know that the USA hockey team defeated the Russians tonight, and will play Sweden in the gold medal game.”

    PAN.DE.MON.I.UM.

    The basketball game was delayed at least five minutes because the shouts of USA! USA! USA! from both sides of the floor. It was awesome.

  22. sheila says:

    Lisa – wow, that is so awesome!

  23. puckstick says:

    Someone has posted the entire February 9, 1980 USA v. USSR at MSG on youtube.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdWHxHdzHNo

    No announcers, no commercials, it is almost like being there (except for the pesky tape time counter that is in every shot). You can even hear a lot of the individuals in the Madison Square Garden crowd yelling various unpleasantries at the refs.

    While the score ended 10-3, I think that the real takeaway for Team USA had to be that they scored three goals on Tretiak in the last 23 minutes of the game and showed some flashes of skating with the Soviets in that last part of the game. Admittedly, the Soviets scored 5 goals in that same span on Janaszak but I saw reason for hope in that third period.

    Interestingly, the Eruzione goal in this game was very similar to the one in the Miracle on Ice game (reason enough to think he would have beaten Tretiak in the Miracle game just as he did Myshkin?).

    Also, the Verchota goal was almost identical to the Mark Johnson goal at the end of the period in the Miracle on Ice game. Verchota shot it from outside the two defensemen on a solo rush and rushed past them both to get the juicy Tretiak rebound and put it home.

    In my opinion, there is no chance that Team USA would have beaten the Soviets on Feb 22 if they had not played them on Feb 9.

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